‘The pieces are in place'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The acceptable time frame for rebuilding the UNC football team is drawing near. Despite another merciless slate of competition in now arguably the nation's toughest college football conference, there is no more room for excuses.

The talent is undoubtedly on board. How the Tar Heels parlay it into the 2004 Atlantic Coast Conference race, however, remains to be seen.

UNC coach John Bunting announced Monday during Carolina's annual summer media day at Kenan Stadium that, in his mind, the corner has officially been turned.

The press conference coincided with the opening day of summer workouts.

"The pieces to this enormous puzzle are now in place," Bunting said. "We're heading in the right direction. We've had a tremendous off-season. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to show explicit improvement."

The consensus belief is that the Tar Heels' offense should be even more potent than the one that produced nearly 400 yards of total offense per game a year ago. Record setter Darian Durant returns for his senior campaign to lead a resurgent rushing attack and dangerous aerial arsenal, which will operate from behind the most experienced offensive line UNC has had in some time.

Special teams were much improved to start last season as well.

So when Bunting speaks of vast improvement, he is obviously referring to a defense which languished in the sub-horrid zone throughout 2003.

For years Carolina has operated with a defensive "goalboard" – a chart that helps to keep up with numerous defensive objectives. But according to Bunting, new co-defensive coordinator John Gutekunst might scrap it, if he hasn't already.

"He's not interested in a goalboard at all," Bunting said. "He just wants to win."

Gutekunst and co-defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders have worked simultaneously in developing a defensive scheme more adaptable to success.

"It's a simple game," Chase Page said. "They line up, you match them, and then you go tackle the ball."

Bunting reported that Isaiah Thomas and Jonas Seawright have lost over a combined 75 pounds since the training camp began last year.

"We need to stop the run," Bunting said. "Anybody that follows us knows that. I've got a defense that is going to be stronger and faster. Those two guys, along with Chase Page, are probably the three most important guys to stopping the run.

"On the perimeter…Khalif Mitchell has added an awful lot to our defense with the way he can run and with the physicalness that he brings to the field."

Ends' Alden Blizzard and Tommy Davis are a year older and redshirt freshman Kyndraus Guy, who Bunting said is "back full and ready to go" following his recovery from shoulder surgery, are expected to make an impact as well.

"Those guys can help us rush the passer better," Bunting said. "It starts with the run, then the perimeter play and the pass."

Any improvement in the pass rushing category will be a welcome one, as the Tar Heels sacked the opposing quarterback just 16 times last season – 20 fewer times than league leader Florida State.

With the addition of transfer senior Gerald Sensabaugh in the secondary and the continued maturation of a younger, but quicker linebacking corps, most expect the defense to show improvement – perhaps markedly. After all, the only way to go is up for this crew.

Still, will it be enough? Unless the Tar Heel defense is substantially upgraded, then it might not matter how many points Durant and Co. can ring up on stadium scoreboards across the ACC and in Salt Lake City.

In the meantime, the elephant, which is how many wins will it take to reduce the temperature of Bunting's already searing hot seat, went relatively unnoticed.

And when asked about the pressure he faces to produce a competitive product on the field this season, Bunting replied, "I do not hide from anything at all, and I never will. I will never be ashamed of my effort. I don't think about last year. Last year was tough, but I think about now – what's in the present.

"I don't feel pressure. I look forward to opportunity."

Stay tuned to Inside Carolina all this week for more reports from UNC's Media Day…

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